Category Archives: Childhood

The Book

Actually, it was a gift for Dave's father who was an editor on the Boston Herald Traveler.

Dave works on his memoir.

I hope you’ve enjoyed the stories that I’ve posted here along with those that appeared in the Marblehead Reporter. The total is 34.  But some of you may have noticed that I mentioned a memoir when I started this website in July 2013.

This book is still in second draft form and needs a lot of work before I can think about submitting it to literary agents. And the truth is that I can’t work on it while I’m teaching statistics at Washington University here in St. Louis, writing new material for the Marblehead Reporter,  generating weekly blog posts, and taking care of normal household responsibilities for my wife Barbara and me. To say nothing of the exercise—three mornings a week—that a sedentary occupation like writing demands, and singing in the church choir (Barbara sings in two). Something has to go.

The original draft of the book had fifteen chapters and was far too long. Now I’ve managed to cut it down and have three chapters of the new version ready for some feedback. Believe me, it’s difficult to produce a coherent and readable book-length memoir when you’re used to churning lots of short pieces as I have. Novelists start at other end of the process, and have a far easier time with memoirs.

I could keep up the weekly blog posts (there’s no shortage of material) but each one can take up to a full day to research, to write and to highlight with decent photos. So I need to hold off on the blog posts for while and focus on a few more short pieces for the Marblehead Reporter along with the memoir.

I’ll let you know when new articles appear in the Reporter and when I reach major milestones with the book. If the meantime, if you want to be sure of receiving updates you can subscribe to the website or follow me on Facebook.

Sea Scouts

Marblehead Sea Scout in their whaleboat off Fort Sewell. from Hartley Alley's " A Gentleman from Indiana Looks at Marblehead" 1963

Marblehead Sea Scouts in their whaleboat off Fort Sewell. From Hartley Alley’s “A Gentleman from Indiana Looks at Marblehead” Bond Wheelwright Company, Freeport, Maine1963

I remained with Boy Scout Troop 3 in Marblehead until 1954 when I was 15, around the time that our scoutmaster, Dave Eckhardt, was drafted into the Army. Many of us knew of the illustrious Sea Scout Ship Marblehead, which had prospered in the 1930s, winning the National Flagship Award and appearing in a Life Magazine feature in 1940. All of those boys and their leaders went into the military in World War II and after the war the Ship was revived but dissolved a few years before I became eligible to join.

A number of us in Troop 3 lobbied our parents and sponsors at the American Legion to revive the Sea Scout Ship again. An adult committee, which included my father, met with Legion and Scout officials who agreed to re-charter the Ship to begin meeting in the fall of 1954. Our new Skipper was to be Don Sweet, who had been a member of the 1930s group and who had served in the Merchant Marine during World War II.

When we met, Don told us to scrounge surplus navy uniforms, both wool winter blues and cotton summer whites. My mother knew a man about my size who had served in the Navy. She drove me over to his house in Beverly where he handed over his old uniforms with the sailors’ bell-bottomed pants. We stopped at Almy’s in Salem for the Sea Scout patches which she sewed on the next day.

Each week we gathered in uniform at the American Legion Hall. Our skipper directed us to lay out the room like the deck of a ship with wooden stanchions connected by ropes representing the rail. He taught us the proper naval protocol for boarding a ship, including proper salutes and piping officers aboard with a Bosun’s pipe.

We needed a whaleboat which one of our leaders located in Georgetown. We drove about twenty miles one evening in his pickup truck with a trailer hitch to bring it back to Marblehead. The boat was a little over twenty-six feet in length with four benches, or thwarts, accommodating eight oarsmen. A coxswain at the stern used a steering oar to direct the boat while an officer sat at the bow.

The American Legion did not allow us to use the “Beachcomber” cottage across from Fort Sewell Beach that the earlier groups has used as headquarters. But they did let us store and maintain our whaleboat right behind the cottage where we could launch it easily at high tide into Little Harbor. We fixed it up, launched it and set out to practice our rowing skills with our skipper’s son Don Sweet, Jr. serving as coxswain. After several weekend trips around Marblehead Harbor we learned to handle the boat well and were prepared for a big event coming up in June.

Sea Scouts Dick Bridgeo and Walter Bartlett on the porch of the Beachcomber Cottage. from Life Magazine, August 5, 1940

Sea Scouts Dick Bridgeo and Walter Bartlett on the porch of the Beachcomber Cottage. from Life Magazine, August 5, 1940

Several Sea Scout Ships from the North Shore of Boston held an annual regatta at Stage Fort Park in Gloucester timed to coincide with the festival of St. Peter, the patron saint of fishermen. A naval vessel, a cruiser, made a courtesy visit for the festival and some of the Scouts rowed out in their whaleboats for a tour of the ship.

To reach Gloucester from Marblehead we rowed about fifteen miles across Massachusetts Bay taking maybe two hours with a light wind and favorable currents. Don Sweet, Jr. steered from his coxswain’s perch at the stern while Don, Sr., our skipper, directed from the bow. We wore casual clothes, saving our summer whites for formations and for a night on the town in Gloucester. We carried our clothes in sea bags in the whaleboat with us while my father and some others brought the rest of our gear to Gloucester by car.

We were pitching our tents in the park when I heard a scream behind me. I turned to see Don Sweet, Jr. running in circles having hit his hand with the back of an axe while pounding in a tent peg. My father tackled him, bringing him to the ground and held his bleeding hand steady. Don Sr. arrived on the run and bundled his hysterical son into a car for the short drive to Cape Ann hospital. They returned to the campsite a couple of hours later with the younger Don sporting a fat bandage on his left hand. I hadn’t expected my father to act so quickly. I was proud of him for his decisive action in an emergency.

That evening we donned our whites and walked towards the Gloucester fish piers to enjoy the carnival set up to celebrate the Feast of St. Peter. The crew of the naval vessel visiting Gloucester had shore liberty and wore summer whites just like ours, except for the Sea Scout patches. A small group of us, Dave Fleming, Paul Meo, Charlie Pike, “Pic” Harrison and I, stopped at a booth selling ridiculous joke hats. Paul Meo and others dared me to buy a very wide, floppy beret: yellow with blue and pink polka-dots. I bought it stowing my white sailor’s cap into a pocket and putting the silly hat on my head. We stuffed ourselves with hot dogs and other snacks and decided after a while to walk back to our camp site in the park.

We had almost reached the Gloucester Fishermen’s Monument on Western Avenue when a jeep manned by sailors with Shore Patrol arm bands stopped beside us. “Come over here!” the driver barked at me. “You’re out of uniform!” I realized right away that the Shore Patrolmen had mistaken us for sailors from the cruiser, and that if I didn’t produce my Sea Scout card quickly I’d be on my way to the brig. I snatched the polka-dotted beret off my head and fumbled for my wallet. The man looked at my card and said OK before driving off.

The next morning, a Sunday, we Catholics attended Mass, celebrated by a priest in full vestments in front of a tent in the park. Two Gloucester Sea Scouts served as altar boys. Afterwards we competed in a whaleboat race, coming in second despite an exhausting effort at the oars.

Our fathers returned with their cars to pick up our gear. We broke camp, and started the long row back to Marblehead Harbor. The current which had favored us on the trip to Gloucester now opposed us and the rowing got very hard. We put our backs into it but the water towers and other landmarks on shore barely moved in relation to us. After an hour and half we hadn’t yet completed a third of our journey. A friendly man in a powerboat pulled alongside. “Want a tow?” he asked. We tossed him a line and relaxed all the way back to the dock in Marblehead.

The Beachcomber Dory Club, occupants of the building before the Sea Scout took over. From the Peach Collection

The Beachcomber Dory Club, occupants of the building before the Sea Scout took over. From the Peach Collection

Beyond the camping expedition, our skipper and his associates taught us numerous nautical skills and took us on expeditions which included a visit to an aircraft carrier, a weekend at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire, and a short cruise on a destroyer. These Sea Scout adventures were the high points of my late adolescence, but I gave little credit to our leaders for arranging them. As kids we had no idea what it took to set these plans into motion.

Years later I read that Don Sweet Jr., had died in Florida in 1995 at age 55 and that Don, Sr. died in August 2001 at 85.    My mother kept the polka-dotted beret from the St. Peter’s festival in Gloucester at our home in Marblehead until it disintegrated.

Next week: Crawford’s Notch

Camp Norshoco

Skunk Hollow at Camp Norshoco with platform tents and the  old dining hall and post-office ( barely visible at the right..) The new dining hall is near the top. Photo by Dave Crowley, age 14

Skunk Hollow at Camp Norshoco with platform tents and the old dining hall and post-office ( barely visible at the right..) The new dining hall is near the top. Photo by Dave Crowley, age 14

I might have been 16 when one of the leaders at Camp Norshoco in Alfred, Maine, showed me a small album of color photos depicting log cabins situated at the edge of a dense pine forest. When I saw the pictures, in 1954, the camp was mostly open fields with a couple of low hills and patches of new growth hardwoods, grasses, shrubs, and a swampy creek. “How I missed the old cabins in the pines,” I thought to myself, adding, “They must have been wonderful”  In fact, I had never seen them, because in the fall of 1947,  a series of fires had destroyed over 300 square miles of Maine forest, including Camp Norshoco, three years before my first two-week visit to the camp in 1950.

We campers, from various Boy Scout troops in Marblehead, Salem and other North Shore towns slept in tents on wooden platforms in three encampments: Skunk Hollow, where I stayed two or three summers, a second site whose name I’ve forgotten, and Little Egypt, named for its Army-surplus square pyramid tents. There were three buildings: a long prefabricated dining hall with a corrugated steel roof and a kitchen at one end, a small infirmary and a modest administrative structure that doubled as a post office. There was a lake, in which we swam and canoed, called, as far as I knew, Lake Norshoco. In reality its name was Bunganut Pond – as I discovered from a recent Facebook posting. The name Norshoco, I believed then, referred to the Indian tribe that had once lived on its shores.

Little Egypt was reserved for Scout troops that attended Norshoco together, with their own leadership rather than as individuals mixed in with kids, as I was, from other troops. The most cohesive unit to attend Norshoco while I was there was Troop 83 from Ste. Anne’s parish on Jefferson Avenue in Salem, Mass. Its scoutmaster was an energetic priest named Father Bourgault. I had never seen a priest out of uniform before Fr. Bourgault, yet there he was, walking across the parade ground, pot bellied, and wearing an undershirt, shorts and sneakers. I didn’t believe that he was really a priest until he celebrated Mass for us the next Sunday, in full vestments.

Marblehead Boys in Skunk Hollow 1951: Joe Homan, rear; John Collins, Fred Petersen, Ross Goodwinn, left to right; Paul Meo & Warner Hazel (?) front. Photo from Chris Brown

Marblehead Boys in Skunk Hollow 1951: Rear – Joe Homan,  Middle – John (Jack) Collins, Freddy Petersen, & Ross Goodwinn, Front – Paul Meo & Warner Hazel (?). Photo from Chris Brown

Troop 3 in Marblehead, where I was a member, didn’t seem cohesive at all. It wasn’t the fault of our leaders; it was, instead, the large number of misfits among us, or so I believed. I envied the other troops like Father Bourgault’s in Salem, and Troop 11 from St. Andrew’s Methodist in Marblehead. They each had at least a dozen Eagle Scouts; we had one.

In 1953 a group of us from Troop 3 spent a week in Little Egypt at Camp Norshoco, along with one of our Assistant Scoutmasters. The first two days were fun, but the rest of the week was absorbed in drama generated by the destructive antics of two of our misfits,

During my second stay in Skunk Hollow in 1952, I developed painful headaches, and lay on my bunk during a hot summer afternoon. My three tent mates and some others were not sympathetic, taunting and throwing shoes at me while I tried to rest. By the end of the day, I had enough of this mistreatment and headed to the infirmary; I was feeling feverish and sick all over by then.

The infirmary nurse was the only female in camp and seemed to be in her thirties. She had medium length dark curly hair and was very attractive in her white uniform. She took my temperature, fed me some fluids and aspirin and put me in a cot. I went to sleep and woke up feeling better. She appeared with food on a tray from the dining hall and asked if she and her son could eat with me. I had noticed the young boy, maybe about eight. He wasn’t an official camper and he stayed mostly in the infirmary with his mother. He had some ugly scars on one leg, centered around the back of his knee, and walked with a pronounced limp. I sat on the edge of my cot to eat my supper, while the nurse and her son sat on another cot. I was the only infirmary patient. Afterwards she and her boy retreated into the dispensary beyond the small patient ward; their bedroom was in the back, out of my view.  I went back to bed and turned over, and as I looked up, I saw her walking past the open dispensary door in just a white slip.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, “I forgot you were here. I hope you don’t mind me in my slip. I don’t get many overnight patients.  My son is sleeping in the bedroom, so I change in here to avoid disturbing him.” She disappeared and came back in a bathrobe. “ I need to tell you about Paul,” she said, and in that instant, by addressing me as another human being who might be curious about the scars on the boy’s leg, she granted me a degree of adult respect that no one had shown me before. To her I wasn’t a patient requiring professional distance or a child needing supervision or discipline; I was another person, just as worthy as she was. Her appearance in the slip hadn’t seemed at all immodest to me, no more so than seeing my own mother in one.

She continued, “Paul was a baby when he pulled over a pot of boiling water on the stove scalding his leg. It was just an accident, but in healing, the burn left these very tight contractures that I have to work and massage every day to keep his leg and as flexible and mobile as possible. When he’s a little older, he’ll need an  operation on his tendons.”

Norshoco Patch

Camp Norshoco Patch

I awoke the next morning feeling fine and went back to my tent mates who didn’t bother me again. The nurse had given me refuge and the gift of respect.  So empowered, I thought again about the name of our camp − there never were any Norshoco Indians, it was simply a contraction of our Boy Scout district: The North Shore Council.

Next week: Troop 3

Freddy at 18 Pearl

Liquid Joy

Liquid Joy

After school one day in 1950 when we were twelve, Freddy and I got to Pearl Street and found a small plastic bottle sitting on the porch by the front door. There was a large tag attached to it proclaiming that “Liquid Joy,” a brand new product, would get your dishes, glasses and silverware cleaner than any of the old fashioned powders could. What’s more, the tag said, this very sample of “New Liquid Joy” was free.

Neither of us I had given any thought to dish washing detergents, but we brought the sample into the house anyway. No adults were home. We took it upstairs to the bathroom and I got the idea of pouring the whole bottle down the sink. I did and ran a lot of hot water after it for good measure. After a while we went into my room which had a window overlooking the side yard. I looked out and saw a large mound of soapy bubbles in the center of the yard. The pile of bubbles billowed larger and larger as we watched. I knew right away what I should have thought of before dumping the detergent into the sink and sending all that hot water in after it. In the middle of the side yard was a vent connected to the sewer pipe that joined the drains in the house to the sewer line in the street. The bubbles were lighter than water, and like the sewer gases that the vent was designed to expel, they rose to the surface.  The bubbles stopped growing and, very slowly, began to pop. By the time the adults came home an hour or so later no evidence was left.

After I reconnected with Freddy in 2102, he and I were talking on the phone when I thought of an incident my mother had recalled, but that I had forgotten. Freddy and I were around eleven when we came back to my house at 18 Pearl Street after an afternoon of fishing in the harbor. My mother was fixing dinner and I asked if Freddy could eat with us.

“Sure, let me speak with Vivian and make sure it’s OK with her,” my mother replied.

“My mother isn’t home, it’s only Omama,” Freddy said, referring to his grandmother.

“Fine, I’ll speak with her.”

“She doesn’t speak any English, only Spanish and German,” Freddy answered.

“Well….” My mother paused and said, “OK, can you call and ask if it’s all right for you to stay over?”

Freddy called Omama and emitted a rapid-fire burst of Spanish. He listened for a minute and turned to my mother and said, “It’s OK.”

Later my mother told me that she had been uneasy. After all, she didn’t want to get into hot water with Vivian, a very strict European-style parent, but she also  wasn’t about to deprive Freddy of dinner.

At age twelve, I knew nothing about Omama except that she and Vivian spoke in German.  For all I knew she could have been the witch from “Hansel and Gretel.”

When I told the story to Freddy he laughed. “Omama’s English was fine,” he said, “She could speak six languages.”  I had forgotten that he had said that she had been married to an Englishman in Argentina for many years. Now we both laughed. At age eleven, Freddy had bamboozled  my mother about his grandmother’s English and gotten away with it. But something about what he said had ignited my curiosity about Omama. His truthful account had liberated her from the fairy tale in my mind.  “If Freddy’s grandmother looked and sounded so Germanic, wouldn’t her name have been something like Hilde or Gertrude?,” I wondered. What was Omama’s name, I asked Freddy.

“Her name was Margaret Lewis,”

Next week; Camp Norshoco

Fireworks at Eighteen Pearl

A package of one-inch firecrackers like the ones I ordered in 1951

A package of one-inch firecrackers like the ones I ordered in 1951

In 1950-51, when I was twelve and in the sixth grade, we lived with a family friend I’ll call Jean. She owned an advertising agency with offices in the Pickering Coal building in Salem, and had recently bought the Victorian house at Eighteen Pearl Street in Marblehead.  Our landlord at Twenty Circle Street wanted his house back on short notice, and Jean had two large extra bedrooms. We moved in just after school  let out in May 1950.

Like other boys in the days before drugs, I found all the excitement I needed in a non-chemical adventure just as dangerous: playing with gunpowder that we salvaged by scraping dozens of paper caps intended for toy pistols, or from the occasional firecracker that we scrounged.  Fireworks were illegal in Massachusetts, but as the Fourth of July approached most kids my age got their hands on a few firecrackers, either from family trips to the south where they were sold in roadside stands, or by mail order. Mail order fireworks were tricky. The vendors wouldn’t ship to states where they were illegal, but they did ship to New Hampshire, which had less restrictive laws than Massachusetts. Many Marblehead families had friends and relatives in New Hampshire, but I didn’t.

I was describing the fireworks dilemma to Jean, one day, when her face lit up. “There’s a man where I work, Ralston Pickering, who gets his fireworks by mail order in New Hampshire. I’ll see if he can get some for you.” The next day, Jean came home with a fireworks catalogue. I was delighted but didn’t really believe that the scheme would work: this Ralston Pickering guy would forget my part of the order, or he’d be stopped by the State Police when he returned to Massachusetts.  I went ahead anyway and ordered a modest collection including several packets of ladyfingers, tiny half-inch firecrackers that you set off by the whole packet, even more packets of the one-inch variety which were the favorite of all the kids, a bunch of sparklers and a few small rockets.

A box like the collection I kept in my blanket chest

A box like the collection I kept in my blanket chest

After two or three weeks of anxious waiting, Jean announced that Pickering would bring my order to work the following day. Jean brought the small carton home, and I raced upstairs to my room to inspect my cache. I couldn’t wait for the next day to tell my friends, Chris Brown, Tommy White and a boy I call Tim  about what I had. Setting them off by myself held no appeal; I had to share to enjoy them at all.

I kept the box in the blanket chest below the window in my bedroom and gave the fireworks to friends as the Fourth approached— with the understanding that we shoot them off together.  We did, mostly in the back yard at Eighteen Pearl during the daytime when we wouldn’t attract attention, or the police. We even fired off a couple of rockets there and had no idea where the hot debris landed.

Kids who wanted to set them off by themselves or with others had to pay me cash, I decided. After all, It added a little cachet to my otherwise powerless existence. I sold the final half-string of one-inchers individually for a quarter each, except for the last two or three which I sold to Tim for fifty cents each.

The association of New Hampshire with fireworks lay submerged in the recesses of my mind along with other childhood exploits and misadventures; I hadn’t thought about it for over sixty years. Then I read of the indictment of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers accused in the Boston Marathon bombing that killed three people and injured more than two-hundred others on April 15, 2013  Tamerlan, the deceased older brother, had visited Phantom Fireworks in Seabrook, New Hampshire in February and bought 48 mortars, which, the indictment alleged, the two of them used to construct the pressure cooker bombs that they detonated at the marathon’s finish line. It seems that fireworks laws in New Hampshire hadn’t changed much. Just like us at age twelve sixty years ago, they had salvaged gunpowder from ordinary fireworks.

Eighteen Pearl Street in 2012

Eighteen Pearl Street in 2012

We moved from Eighteen Pearl in the summer of 1951, just before I started junior high school. Jean sold it a couple of years later and eventually moved to Florida. The house looked shabby when I walked by during my high school years, but now it is restored to its delightful Victorian splendor.

Next week: Freddy at Eighteen Pearl